“Set against the backdrop of the 7th July 2005 bombings, London River tells the story of a friendship which develops between two seemingly unconnected people – Elizabeth (Brenda Bleythn) and Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyate). Both of them have come to London to search for their children who are missing in the aftermath of the bombings.
Although they come from different religious backgrounds – Ousmane is an African Muslim living in France and Elizabeth is a white Christian living in Guernsey, they share the same hope of finding their children alive.

Putting aside their cultural differences, they give each other the strength to continue the search and maintain their faith in humanity.”
Issues of race, nationhood, community and kinship lie at the heart of your films. What were your specific motivations for making ‘LONDON RIVER’?

I would say that all my films are concerned with the subject of meetings between different people, from different countries and different worlds. This theme of meetings is always at the heart of my films, because the characters are always on a journey. And this phenomenon goes beyond the characters on screen to the actors themselves.

I find the concept of the meeting between Sotigui Kouyaté, an African actor, and Brenda Blethyn, a British actor fascinating – beyond the fact of their friendship, it’s a human connection between two people of different nationalities, religions, universes. It allows one to go beyond the cinematic encounter and affords the film a level of truth about the meeting and the different cultures of these two individuals.

Did you always have Sotigui & Brenda in mind for the parts?

Sotigui, yes. After we made ‘LITTLE SENEGAL’ together, I knew I wanted to work with him again, and I wrote ‘LONDON RIVER’ with him in mind. As for Brenda, I’ve had her in mind for something ever since I saw Mike Leigh’s film ‘SECRETS AND LIES’. When I finally met her she was very busy working on other projects, so I waited a year for her to be free, because I knew it had to be those two for the film. They were the film.

You’ve said in an interview that the subjects you choose to film allow you to find yourself. Did you find yourself within ‘LONDON RIVER’?

In as much as this is a film about the problem of being a Muslim in Europe, then yes, this film concerns me personally. I was living in France at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks, and I felt the after-effects. Suddenly it was more
difficult than ever to be an Algerian in France.

The subject matter is quite sensitive…
I hope that people who see the film will understand that the event itself is just starting a point. My film is less about the bombings themselves, and more about the meeting between these two people that takes place in their wake. That’s what was important to me, that these two people who meet are united by the same problem, which is their desire to find their children.

And the story is about these two people, a man and a woman from very different backgrounds but faced with the same fears, the same anxieties. It needed a crisis to bring them together, but that crisis could have been something else, the September 11 attacks for example.
‘LONDON RIVER’ is first and foremost a human drama, about how people react to events such as these, how they come together in the same place and forge a connection. Events such as the attacks of 7/7 naturally divide people, but at the same time they also bring them together. They need one another. People have to come together in the face of such crises. It’s an obligation.

In many ways the film seems to be summed up by the line that she speaks, “our lives aren’t so different”.
It’s true. Our lives aren’t so different because we’re not so different, whichever of the four corners of the globe we might live in. In our thoughts, our feelings, our fears, our joys, our hopes and worries – our lives, they’re not so different at all. They’re the same.

Could you tell me how you came to be involved in the project? What was it about the screenplay that first attracted you it?

Actually, when Rachid asked to meet in London and I didn’t know who he was! But I met him anyway and he was really quite inspiring: everything about him – his attitude, his demeanor, these things. And of course it helped that he liked my work! Then I saw ‘DAYS OF GLORY’, and I thought it was wonderful.

But I wasn’t sure that the dates were going to fit – and if I remember rightly at this point he didn’t even have the script ready, just the story. The other thing was at the time the incident was still really very fresh in the memory. It still is, but then it was even more so.
But then the film isn’t about that incident, it just takes place then, that’s when their paths cross. And I found my character’s ignorance of the Muslim faith interesting – I think many people are ignorant of others’ faiths. Although it’s not about that either though really. I just thought, two people, completely different cultures, completely different faiths, coming together and finding a meeting ground, it’s an interesting story.

And I knew it would be a good film with Rachid directing. So Rachid said he’d wait for me, which took nearly a year in end. Then of course there was the fact of working in French, which was a new challenge for me….

In many ways, your character finds herself in a foreign country – one that is as lien to her, if not more so, than it is to Ali’s father.

It’s foreign to both of them really. They’ve both come from working with land, nature. It’s a sleepy place, Guernsey: trying to find someone in the middle of the bustle of London, when you come from order, must be a nightmare. Also she’s very reserved. In the alley, for example, when she meets the butcher, she’s thrown – that’s not the sort of person she’d interact with.

And it’s only when he explains that he’s the landlord that she lets down her guard. He’s got a role then. She says to her brother on the phone, “It’s crawling with Muslims”. I was a little wary about that phrase, which was an adlib, but that’s the way she thought.

Suddenly she’s been embroiled into this strange world. Being an outsider in that community must be as close as white people come to the experience of exclusion that many black people have – just look how helpful the police were as soon as she mentioned that there was a black Muslim with a picture of her daughter!

She’s certainly very insular; is she a racist?
Not racist, but certainly ignorant. She’s conservative. Then again, in Sotigui’s culture, too, there are prejudices. There, I think, the women are still to some extent second class citizens – for example it’s frowned upon for a woman to smoke in front of a man in that culture. When my character lights that cigarette in front of him – and she doesn’t even smoke! – you can see that’s something he’s uncomfortable with.

But I suppose you could say that it takes something of these proportions to make people think about these things. If it hadn’t been for those terrible events she’d still be at home, feeding her donkeys – she wouldn’t even have thought about other ways of life, hers was ok thank you. She was perfectly happy with the prejudice she didn’t know she had!

Then this happens, and she starts to question everything. Where is she – where is her daughter? I think really until the perpetrators are caught, she still must think that she’s been kidnapped or something, maybe held for ransom.

And at the same time she’d even think that that’s absurd to think that, that her daughter’s probably just too scared to call her, because she knows the sort of reaction that she’d get if she were to call up and say “Mum, I’ve met this guy, he’s black, we’re getting married at the Mosque…”

The silly thing is, when it comes to it, she’s actually pretty ok with it. She reaches the point where she can leave a message for her daughter about buying a new hat for the wedding. In the end it’s ok, because nothing’s as bad as her child being lost. Nothing’s so bad that she can’t call her mum, they’ll deal with it.

Like your characters, you and Sotigui come from very different backgrounds. How did you find working together?
It was a hugely pleasant experience! Being with Sotigui was like being in the presence of royalty. The majesty of the man is… well, how lucky was I to be working with him? He’s just wonderful, and I just hope a little of what he had rubbed off on me.

He has true inner strength. We’d have long, long conversations, both of us struggling to be understood, and by hook or by crook we got there. With a bit of pigeon English, a bit of pigeon Malian, and a bit of pigeon French on my part – we’d sit for ages chatting. The whole family was great really. Everyone. Working in the East End of London, the weather was terrible, it rained everyday, but everyone that contributed was wonderful.

And then we went off to France to shoot all the interiors and the Guernsey scenes and it was even better! Sometimes you get a project that ticks all the boxes: above all the people you meet, who you admire and you want to go on that journey with. And it was a journey I’m glad I took, because I learnt something along the way.
What was it about Rachid’s screenplay that convinced you to do the film?
The theme of the film doesn’t just concern Africa, but the whole of society. That is, it is about the crisis of communication and the problem of identity. This is particularly relevant to Africa. I believe that every African has a duty towards Africa, since every African carries Africa within him.

But Africa is terribly misunderstood – by others and by itself: the word ‘Africa’, itself is such a superficial term, given the diversity of nations and peoples. African is 3 million metres squared – that’s the size of Europe, the States, China and Argentina all together! We can’t talk of it as if it were a single entity, there’s more to it than that.

One of the interesting things about Rachid’s film is that he shows an older African travelling abroad to find out what Africans abroad are like, what motivates them. Many films show African-Americans going back to the old continent to discover their roots, but this film shows the reverse of that. This, for me, is the first time I’ve seen that on film.

But while I am African, and always will be, what matters most to me is humanity. In any story, if the human being is not at its heart then it doesn’t interest me. London River is about the problems that life poses for mankind. It has to do with the attacks of 7/7, and it also talks of Islam, but these subjects are not at its heart. Rather, it wants to show the difficulties people have in accepting one another, the fear they feel.

It is a film about how we react to things, and this is what interests me. It teaches us that when you meet the other, don’t be scared to look them in the eye; for if you are brave enough to do so, you will finish by seeing yourself more clearly.

There’s an African proverb: “Take me back to yesterday” – which supposes, of course, that yesterday was something good. My first experience of working with Rachid was exactly that. We have so much in common, in terms of history and of humanity. And such openness, such respect for others, as Rachid has is rarely seen.

When we were working on ‘LITTLE SENEGAL’ he would ask me to read the script and offer my thoughts and criticisms: this is very rare in a director. But more extraordinary still is that subsequently he’d adapt the script taking my thoughts into account. Such consideration creates a very positive tone from the outset.

LONDON RIVER’ will be released on DVD on the 11th October, by Trinity.

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